Facebook art exhibit proves provocative

By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
May 9, 2008

NORTH BRANFORD — Facebook, the social networking site, has become ubiquitous in the lives of most college students, who use it to stay in touch with friends, plan parties and share photos.

Martha Martinez, a junior at Mount Holyoke College originally from North Branford, wanted to explore the boundaries of Facebook in an art installation at the college.

Her project, which used photos from fellow students’ Facebook profiles, has sparked a conversation on the campus about privacy and the role of the Web site in students’ lives.

The art installation was part of an independent study project and was on view in a gallery at Mount Holyoke for the first two weeks in April. Martinez, 26, said that the gallery was “packed” on the opening day of the exhibit.

“The traffic was just continuous — people would run in, run out, grab their friends and bring them into the gallery space,” she said. “Part of the reason is they saw themselves implicated in this artwork.”

After coming up with the concept for the project, Martinez worked with four other Mount Holyoke students and an adviser, associate professor of art Rie Hachiyanagi.

The idea of the installation was to “create space for critical thinking and pondering about these new social spaces and what values we end up compromising on these spaces that we wouldn’t readily compromise in a physical space,” Martinez said.

The installation had several elements, each focused on a different aspect of Facebook use. The artists created a wallpaper of students’ profile pictures, the main picture each member has on a profile page. They also printed out images from students’ photo albums, which can include hundreds of pictures, and stuffed them into a file cabinet in the gallery. A performance artist took photos of herself, mimicking the self-reflective pictures that members often use for their profiles.

As people entered the exhibit, a camera captured their images and projected them onto a panel. And a final component was to embody “the wall,” a feature on Facebook that allows people to leave messages for their friends that can be seen by others accessing the profile.

“We had designated a space in the gallery for people to write on the wall and this was interesting because we found that people were parroting Facebook and also using that space to vent about their frustrations with it,” Martinez said.

Many of the students featured in the show are not friends of Martinez or her collaborators, which was one of the factors that led to concern from some students. Anyone with a Facebook account can view members’ profile pictures, and most of the members within a network — in this case, the Mount Holyoke network — can view each other’s profiles with contact information, photos and lists of their friends.

The all-female Mount Holyoke College, located in South Hadley, Mass., has about 2,100 students.

Martinez said she saw a wide range of reactions from students viewing the show. Some students were upset and angry that their images had been used, but others were “exhilarated” about the ideas the installation raised.

“People were so surprised to see their image there and feel more exposed, so some individuals walked out with their photos in hand,” she said. “But then (they were) feeling silly about it because they knew this was out there anyway, because hands down Facebook is more public than a gallery in a college.”

Mary Jo Curtis, a spokeswoman for the college, said she thinks that the reactions to Martinez’ project show that it achieved its goal.

“Some of the students had (concerns) about her not having permission to use their photos, but they were clearly not understanding that if they’re sharing photos on MySpace or Facebook, then they’re putting their private information in the public domain, which is the point she was trying to make,” Curtis said. “Obviously, it was very effective.”

Martinez said the college has been very supportive of her project. She discussed the idea with deans beforehand and worked closely with her adviser.

“Colleges are grappling with the issue of Facebook, too,” she said. “They were really encouraging about it because they know this is public domain. … It just became a place for learning and as a result, I know some students have decided to take down some photographs, to think twice about what they put up there. Even from overseas, there are alumni and students who are abroad who e-mailed me to say that this really made them think twice about Facebook and the Internet.”

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